Injecting the theme park industry’s experience model into product development
This episode is sponsored by PDMA, the Product Development and Management Association. PDMA is a global community of professional members whose skills, expertise, and experience power the most recognized and respected innovative companies in the world. PDMA is also the longest-running professional association for product managers, leaders, and innovators, having started in 1976. I have enjoyed being a member of PDMA for more than a decade, finding their resources and network very valuable. Learn more about them at PDMA.org.
PDMA invited me to their conference, which was in Orlando, Florida, to interview some of their speakers. This speaker gave a keynote on transforming products into experiences: injecting the theme park industry’s experience model into product development. In other words, what can we learn from theme parks to help us do a better job creating products our customers love?
Geoff Thatcher is the Founder & Chief Creative Officer at Creative Principals. As an experienced creative director, he excels at leading projects from concept to reality. These projects are most often about creating world-class experiences in corporate visitor centers, museums, theme parks, and live events.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[2:13] Tell us about your work creating customer experiences.
I started in the experience industry as a 14-year-old cleanup boy at a swimming pool. My job was to make sure the customers experienced a clean pool. I went on to be a lifeguard, a train engineer, and a manager in a rides department. One of the most memorable experiences was working on the Mack Wild Mouse coaster, a classic coaster that was very fun to operate. I worked ten years at Laguna amusement park in Farmington, Utah, and then had a brief flirtation with journalism for about two years. I really missed the parks, and as a journalism major in college I realized our job creating experiences was really about telling stories. I was able to combine the education I got writing and telling stories with telling stories at theme parks, museums, and brand experiences around the world.
I love a good story. Amusement parks have their place, but I love the evolution from amusement parks to theme parks—where the rides tell a story.
[8:58] How can we use this perspective focused on the customer experience to improve products?
To summarize the customer experience framework:
- Attract attention
- Build trust
- Give the information customers need to move forward
- Create an experience for customers to internalize the product
- Be purposeful about the action you want customers to take
The customer experience means the customer is on a journey. The experience model is similar to the hero’s journey and other models that are deeply embedded in the human psyche. I don’t claim to have invented the experience model. I recently wrote a piece talking about the tabernacle in the wilderness as a product experience. The way the priest went through the tabernacle in the wilderness very much aligns with the experience model and the hero’s journey, so these things are just part of who we are as human beings. Any product should be an experience.
The first thing you have to do is attract people’s attention. Often, that’s through product design. If it’s a theme park ride, it’s through an icon. If it’s a museum experience, it might be through signage. If it’s a brand experience, it might be something as simple as a logo.
Once you attract someone’s attention, you have to build their trust. At a trade show, that could be as simple as a handshake. It could be as complicated as an immersive queue through the Hogwarts castle that looks exactly like it did in the movies, so if you’re a fan of the movies, you think, “This is legit,” and that trust is established. When you’re developing a product, what are you going to embed in that product that will build trust with customers?
Next you have to give them the information they need to move forward in their journey. We’ve seen products fail because people do not know how to use them. We’ve seen experiences fail because people don’t know what’s happening next. Often in a theme park, that information is delivered in the pre-show.
Now people are ready to internalize the story. In a theme park, internalizing might be hopping on a coaster. We’re working on a project right now called the Ozark Mill at Finley Farms in Ozark, MO. The Ozark Mill is a historic grain mill. It’s been there for almost 200 years and it’s beautiful. The internalized moment isn’t anything we manufactured. It’s when you step out of the mill onto a platform and you see the waterfall coming over the mill pond and the tree and birds chirping and sun shining. That’s the moment when the story hits home, and you realize the connection. There’s great symbolism in the power of that stream and how it has transformed communities like Ozark. That’s the internalized moment. As a product manager, you hit your customer with emotion and they internalize that product.
Next is action. What do you want that person to do? Cynically, people think all we want in this industry is for customers to exist through retail. There are gift shops at the end of rides, and we do want people to buy things, but it’s more than that. We want people to become part of the story. When you go on the Hogwarts Forbidden Journey ride, you exit through retail. They want you to buy a wand or t-shirt or jersey, but when you’re looking at the quidditch jerseys for teams from Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, and Raven Claw, what’s important is “Where do I belong?” It fosters conversations among family and friends. You talk about the attributes of each house and become part of the story. As product managers, think about what action you want people to take with your products. How can they become part of the story?
[16:18] Can you take us through an example of a project and what you learned to create a better experience and a better product?
I just flew back from Singapore where we were working with a property insurance company called FM Global. Some people say insurance is boring, but it’s quite fascinating. FM Global is one of the world’s leaders in property insurance, and they have a very unique story. They have an engineering-based approach. When you want to become a customer, their engineers show up and look at your facility. They figure out where you can make engineering-based improvements, and if you make those changes FM Global will lower your insurance.
The company started 200 years ago when Zachariah Allen was operating a mill in Providence, RI, and he made improvements so it wouldn’t burn down. He asked his insurance company for a discount, but they said no. Zachariah banded together with a few other mill owners who had also made those improvements, and they founded Factory Mutual insurance company, which is FM Global today.
FM Global has a new Singapore headquarters. When you walk inside, the first thing you see is a two-story LED column that’s giving you real-time data and a visualization of property risk around the world. This conveys trust—FM Global is monitoring the information and doing their job. Then you go upstairs and grab a cup of coffee and have a conversation with somebody while looking at the LED column of risk. Trust is established.
Then you go into a theater and watch a presentation about FM Global. The theater is customer-built with wind effects, and it shakes during the earthquake section. That’s where you get the information you need to move forward in the journey.
Then you go to a series of nine labs—a sprinkler lab where you see sprinklers work, a natural hazard lab where you can fire a 2×4 through a wall and design a factory to withstand floods, and others. This is where you internalize the message.
Finally, you step into a nice boardroom and have conversations about how your property can lower its risk. How can you improve mitigation? What technology can you install? FM Global wants clients to make those improvements to lower their risk.
[22:40] What is new in the area of experience design?
There are always trends in new coaster technology, virtual reality, and augmented reality. One of the things that’s really earth-shattering is artificial intelligence design. This really hit in June 2022, and it’s fundamentally transforming how we work and being very disruptive. Some people are angry about it, and others are loving it and embracing artificial intelligence design tools, including writing tools like Jasper and design tools like Midjourney on DALL-E 2.
This technology started when software engineers were working on software to describe photographs. They realized if they have a software that can describe photographs, why not have a software that takes a prompt and generates an image? Why not learn from all the different artistic styles—painting, impressionism, cubism, watercolor—or even specific artists?
When DALL-E 2 hit in June, I immediately signed up and started using it. It’s pretty earth-shattering. I’m a writer, but now I’m a designer too because all I have to do is write a prompt and I can generate anything I want. We’ve decided as a company to fully embrace artificial intelligence design tools. There are illustrators in the industry who are extremely threatened by this. They feel like it’s going to take their jobs. My daughter Zoe is a designer and an illustrator, and she has decided to fully embrace artificial intelligence design. She loves how much faster she can work, and AI doesn’t fundamentally change how she works. No one really draws everything by hand anymore. Zoe also says what she loves about AI tools is she’s learning from them. AI is making her a better artists because she’ll look at what the AI is doing and think, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.”
We did a project last week, and typically it takes one day to do one concept rendering. Zoe did ten renderings in one day using AI. They weren’t as specific or detailed; they were more conceptual. But the client was okay with that. We’re fully transparent with our clients when we use AI design, and I think that is very important. In the conceptual phase, we don’t need all the details. We’re just trying to get the mood right. The clients are happier because one photorealistic rendering can easily cost thousands of dollars. For the same amount, with AI design we can make 10-15 renderings that are loose but give an idea of the concept, and we can easily update the prompt in response to client feedback and explore more ideas.
I always try to make an argument against photoreal renders in the concept phase. I’m doing the client a favor because if I give them a photo reel and then a year from now we make changes along the way, the CEO might say that doesn’t look like what they approved a year ago. If you have to deliver a photo reel in the concept phase, you’re not going to have the flexibility you need moving forward through product development to make the right decisions because you’re worried about the original concept. Keep it chill and loose.
Put the information Geoff shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Visit CreativePrinciples.com
- Check out Creative Principles’ YouTube channel Park Pals
- Connect with Geoff and Creative Principles on Facebook
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